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Seven Keys to Marriage:
A Married Person Looks at the Bishops’ New Pastoral, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan

By: John Feister

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In their long and influential tradition of pastoral letters, the United States Catholic bishops have taken up the topic of marriage. Their new letter, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, was written to boost marriage as a key institution in our Church and in our society.

Not only has marriage been long overdue for the focused attention of our Church’s leaders, but marriage itself is experiencing unprecedented stress by trends in our society. Echoing Pope John Paul II’s insight that the future of humanity depends upon marriage and the family, our bishops “are troubled by the fact that far too many people do not understand what it means to say that marriage—both as a natural institution and a Christian sacrament—is a blessing and gift from God.”

The letter is addressed “first and foremost” to Catholics in the United States, encouraging us to stand “against all attacks on marriage” and to defend the “meaning, dignity and sanctity of marriage and the family.” In this Update we’ll take a look at some overall themes of the bishops’ letter, focusing on seven aspects that might be especially helpful for married couples in our Church.

1. Marriage is a sign of Jesus and his Church.

Marriage was named in the earliest days of Christianity as a sacramental sign of the relationship between Jesus and his Church. We all know “something about the depth, the intimacy and the beauty of the gift of self” that married couples experience. The U.S. bishops’ letter discusses the sign of marriage at length.

2. Marriage has two purposes.
The Church has long seen the purpose of marriage as being more than conceiving and raising children. The other key dimension of marriage, connected closely, of course, to raising children, is the bond of love. The Church has spoken of these two purposes as the unitive and procreative goals. In plain talk, married couples love one another and, when the gift is given, raise children, in Church and society. These two purposes, or ends, of marriage are intimately related.

There is a long tradition of Catholic teaching about marriage, one that Vatican Council II clarified for modern times in the 1960s. The Council taught that marriage is “the intimate partnership of life and the love,” founded by God and “endowed by him with its own proper laws....For God himself is the author of marriage.”

What are those “proper laws”? One was most obvious perhaps until recently: “The Church has taught through the ages that marriage is the exclusive relationship between one man and one woman.” Properly committed to at the outset, it is a lifelong bond that couples must remain committed to, a “faithful, privileged sphere of intimacy between spouses that lasts until death.”

That intimacy is expressed, of course, in “conjugal love,” the sexual intimacy shared between woman and man in marriage, a “complete and total gift” of one to the other. Those of us who are married know that this self-giving goes through many seasons over the course of the couples’ lives: the thrill of first love, the beauty of children, the sharing of good times and challenging times, the stuff of a loving relationship “until death do us part.”

Sexual intimacy is a key part of it all, leading to, in the words of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, “free and mutual self-giving, experienced in tenderness and action, and permeating their entire lives; this love is developed and increased by its generous exercise.”

3. Marriage helps everybody.

The bishops particularly point out that marriage is not a private institution: It is the foundation of the family and is key for all of society. They devote a good deal of attention to explaining why marriage is
limited to a woman and a man: “It is precisely the difference between man and woman that makes possible this unique communion of persons.”

Then they decry a growing trend, they say, of marriage being seen as something of a private matter, separate from child-rearing, “an individualistic project not related to the common good but oriented mostly to achieving personal satisfaction....Thus the decision to marry is seen as one thing; the decision to bear children another.  When children are viewed in this way, there can be damaging consequences not only for them but also for the marriage itself.”

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4. Marriage is a sacrament.

Marriage is a sacrament, in the words of the bishops, “crucial to the Church on a supernatural level.” This sacramental nature of marriage was explained most clearly at Vatican II, which the bishops quote: “Spouses, therefore, are fortified and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and dignity of their state by [this] special sacrament; fulfilling their conjugal and family role by virtue of this sacrament, spouses are penetrated with the spirit of Christ and their whole life is suffused by faith, hope and charity; thus they increasingly further their own perfection and their mutual sanctification, and together they render glory to God” (Church in the Modern World, #48).

“The Holy Spirit binds the spouses together through their exchange of promises in a bond of love and fidelity unto death,” say the bishops. Their covenant is joined to the covenant between Christ and his Church; as Vatican II taught, “directed and enriched” by Christ and his Church.

5. Marriage is mutual, healing, giving.

The married relationship is fueled by the grace of the Holy Spirit. With the help of God, then, the “spouses become willing to do the acts and courtesies of love toward each other, regardless of the feelings of the moment.”

Those acts and courtesies are nurtured by the self-giving life of Christ for his Church; this spills over into the spouses’ relationship, into their families, into the broader Church. No sacrament is given for its own sake, teach the bishops; marriage is a sacrament, “directed toward the salvation of others” (see Catechism, #1534).

Marriage, in imitation of Christ, is a healing relationship. The love of Christ for his Church calls for a “healing relationship between man and woman.” That in no way allows for one-sided subjection of wife to husband; rather, there should be a “mutual subjection of husband and wife.”

Of course Ephesians 5 says it a bit differently, directing wives to be subordinate to husbands, yet for husbands to honor their wives. (When that reading is proclaimed at Mass, there are more than a few nudges among wives and husbands in the pews!) Pope John Paul II took up this passage in his 1998 encyclical, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, saying it “must be understood and carried out in a new way.”

6. Our families are holy families.

Christian families are sacramental. That is, in the love and unity of our homes, we point to the love and unity of the Holy Trinity itself (see Catechism, #2205). Needless to say, our imperfect families can merely point to the perfect, loving relationship of our triune God. But we families do exactly that in the ways that we love and care for one another.

We are given a model to follow in the full humanity of Jesus, who was born into a human family and lived the same joys and hopes, the same struggles and difficulties, as our own families. It’s hard for many of us to imagine the Holy Family as anything but perfect, but the Church offers us the wisdom of considering the full humanity of Jesus, in addition to Jesus’ full divinity.

Let’s reflect on that for a moment, as the bishops suggest. Were there disagreements in the Holy Family? How else could Jesus be like one of us, in all ways but sin? Did the family, together, grow in the understanding of God’s will for them, including young Jesus? Did Jesus learn how to make a living in his father’s trade, like other young men of his day? How else could he be one of us?

Did the entire family endure the pain of losing a father, perhaps when Jesus was a teen? Joseph’s absence in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ adult life points to that. How might that have shaped his understanding of his heavenly father? Did Mary experience the joys and pride of motherhood, in spite of the terrible end of Jesus’ earthly life?

“In contemplating the Jewish family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, people today can understand how this Holy Family is indeed the model and source of inspiration for all Christian families,” say the bishops.

Mothers and fathers nurture the faith of their children in various ways, including prayer and education, teaching the virtues of love, the value of repentance and forgiveness. Christian families are called to be just that: Christian families, in spite of our culture’s strong pull in other directions.

7. Marriages are virtuous.

The dynamics of family holiness depend upon the life of grace and love nurtured in a couple’s marriage. The bishops acknowledge that the Yes proclaimed before the community, at the wedding, begins the “real work of marriage”: to become an “image of Christ’s love for his Church.”

The wedding is filled with the hope to “become what you are!” as our bishops say, but they observe what long-married couples know well: “This will require persistent effort.” Romance will not always be present: A living love knows this.

Growth in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity is a fundamental, biblical way to see the opportunities—and challenges—of married life. “Likewise, they live in hope of God’s kindness, mercy and generosity,” trusting that God is watching over married couples and their families.

The moral virtues, including prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, are also part of the package, but the bishops discuss at length chastity and gratitude.

Married or not, observe the bishops, everyone is called to chastity. In fact, they note, some people may be surprised to learn this applies to marriage. Marital chastity is conjugal chastity. It calls for a couple’s love to be “total, faithful, exclusive and open to life.”

There are many temptations against this chastity, at home and in the community, as any married couple well knows. To guard against these temptations is to grow in “physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy,” say the bishops. That’s a lifelong journey.

On the other hand, there is a “joyous gratitude” that is “critical for marital and family love.” Self-giving, openness to the gift of children—these are the schools of marital love. Children may be God’s gift to the couple, and are to be gratefully welcomed. This gratitude will “overflow from the marriage and family to embrace the Church and the world.”

All of that joy and gratitude nurtures a spirit of hospitality, making the home a welcoming place for the family, for adopted or foster children, even for those in need whom the family chooses to help. The sacraments of the Church confer the grace from God that helps to nurture the marriage and family along the way.

The bishops note what they likely have learned from experienced couples: “Getting married does not, therefore, magically confer perfection. Rather, the love to which the spouses have been configured [through the marriage sacrament] is powerful enough to transform their whole life’s journey so that it becomes a journey towards perfection.”

All of this makes marriage a sign of the Kingdom, say the bishops. Ultimately, “Christian married love is a preparation for eternal life,” one that includes the entire Church.

John Feister is General Editor of Periodicals at St. Anthony Messenger and a freelance writer. He has master’s degrees in humanities and in theology from Xavier University. He is married and has three grown children. His latest book, with Charlene Smith, is, Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman. The complete text of the bishops’ letter, along with many other resources, can be found at the bishops’

NEXT: Catholics and Health Care (by Thomas Nairn, O.F.M.)

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